Role or Position
The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (which includes the CBC and the Société Radio-Canada) is Canada’s national public broadcaster and one of its largest cultural institutions. It offers radio and television programming in English and French, as well as in eight Aboriginal languages, and operates extensive news, music and cultural platforms on the Internet. With a legal mandate to be predominantly and distinctively Canadian, it is required by law to reflect Canada and its regions, to contribute to the flow and exchange of cultural expression, and to reflect Canada’s multicultural nature.
Despite public opinion polls showing that about 70% of Canadians want CBC/SRC’s funding to be maintained or increased, the Harper government slashed its budget by more than $150 million (including lost funding for local programming). This represents more than 10% of the budget and has meant a much-diminished voice for Canada’s public broadcaster. Commercial competitors and conservative commentators have mounted a continuous attack on the CBC/SRC and there are growing calls for the privatisation of the public broadcaster.
In March 2012, the Harper Government announced budget cuts for the Corporation of $115 million over three years. The extent and depth of these cuts is unprecedented. While the cuts represent 10% of the budget, the real number is much higher. The Corporation has not received a positive inflation adjustment for several years and at about 2% of inflation per year over, say, five years, that means another real cut of at least a further 10%.
Add to that another $40 million of lost CRTC funding for local programming, and the total is well over $150 million.
In fact, because of rising costs and investments, CBC/SRC will have to raise an additional $200 million over the next three years.
Canada’s Public Broadcaster
In 1932, at a time when Canada was being flooded by American radio signals and no Canadian radio content was being produced, the Canadian Radio Broadcasting Act created the Canadian Radio Broadcasting Commission (CRBC). The then Prime Minister, R.B. Bennett, a Conservative, insisted:
“This country must be assured of complete Canadian control of broadcasting from Canadian sources, free from foreign interference or influence. … No other scheme than that of public ownership can ensure to the people of this country, without regard to class or place, equal enjoyment of the benefits and pleasures of broadcasting.”
The national radio network was launched in 1933 and in 1936 the CRBC was transformed into a crown corporation, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.
Critics have perennially argued that a crown corporation is not needed since the private sector could adequately reflect Canadian culture back to Canadians. The classic retort to this argument was provided in 1952 by the Minister of Transport, Lionel Chevrier:
“It is perfect nonsense for anyone to suggest that private enterprise in Canada, left to itself, will provide Canadian programs. People who invest their money … will certainly invest it where it will make the most profit – by importing American programs.”
Mark Starowicz, the award-winning executive director of Documentary Programming for CBC/SRC Television maintained that the CBC/SRC, as a leading producer of Canadian content, is still needed in the age of the Internet:
“The real core of prime time, when most Canadians are watching television is between eight and 10. So let’s look at an average week this fall between eight and 10 and see who’s running how much Canadian content. On CBC, 94 per cent of deep prime was Canadian. City TV was 18 per cent. CTV’s second channel was 14 per cent. Global, 7 per cent. CTV’s main channel had 0 per cent. I repeat, CBC 94 per cent.”
What the cuts mean
Canadians can expect to see cuts to live and original programming, including music recording, sports and children’s programming. Dramatic programming on CBC 1 is gone. Beloved shows like Dispatches have disappeared. South American and African bureaus have been or will be closed. About $10 million will be taken away from news programming.
In response to the Conservative government’s cuts, CBC/SRC slashed 80 per cent of Radio Canada International’s budget – from $12.3 million to $2.3 million. After 67 years, Radio Canada International’s shortwave radio service – the “voice of Canada” to the world – was shut down on 25 June, 2012. Canada’s unique and independent voice on international news will no longer be accessible in countries like China, where the website is blocked, as well as in developing countries where Internet usage isn’t as widespread and people depend on radio for national and international news. As well, the RCI news service has been eliminated completely. After 67 years, Radio Canada International’s shortwave facility in Sackville, NB, has closed. What remains is a web-based service.
Despite announcements to the contrary, local programming will be affected. In July 2012, the CRTC eliminated the Local Programming Improvement Fund. The move hits CBC/SRC especially hard: about $40 million was used to support its extensive local programming. Now, because of cuts to its own budget, the CBC/SRC will not be able to replace this source of funding.
What the cuts do not mean
Cuts to the CBC/SRCdo not result in “savings” – they represent real and significant losses to the economy.
The impacts also include 650 job losses over three years. But there is more: a report by independent accountants Deloitte + Touche shows that taking $115 million out of the CBC/SRC’s budget will take nearly $400 million out of the Canadian economy.
Disproportionate Impact on CBC/SRC
To put these numbers in perspective, the March 2012 federal budget introduced roughly $5.2 billion in cuts. According to the government’s figures, this represents 6.9% of federal spending. Most government departments are being asked to absorb about 5% of their budget whereas the CBC/SRC is being asked to absorb more than twice that number.
The result is that CBC/SRC is actually being asked to shoulder more than its fair share of cuts and efficiencies in the public service, with crippling its foreign coverage, diminishing its capacity to produce dramatic programming and slashing Canada’s international presence.
Moreover, since 2006, the Government has cut the CBC/SRC budget by 7% in real terms, but total program expenses of the government have increased by 17%.
Broad Public Support
There is consistent and widespread support for a national public broadcaster and specifically for the CBC/SRC. A November 2011 survey by Harris-Decima showed that 46% of Canadians would like the CBC/SRC's funding to stay at the current level and 23% would like it to be increased. Only 22% said funding should be cut, while 12% say it should be eliminated altogether.
A CBC/SRC 2012 Opinion Leader Survey undertaken by Phoenix SPI showed that nine out of ten Canadian opinion leaders (91%) feel that it is important to have a national public broadcaster like CBC/SRC and four out of five (80%) have favourable overall impressions of the Corporation.
Putting the cuts in perspective
Ian Morrison, head of Friends of Canadian Broadcasting says that Prime Minister Harper’s attitude has been a factor in the cuts: in 2004, when Stephen Harper was asked by a CBC reporter in Winnipeg to comment on his plans for the Corporation, Harper said, "I've suggested that government subsidies in support of CBC's services should be to those things that are not... do not have commercial alternatives." He then added: "When you take a look at things like main-English language television and probably to a lesser degree Radio Two, you could there (sic) at putting those on a commercial basis.”
In a Voices-Voix interview, Mr. Morrison said that he believes that there is an ideological basis to the cuts and to the proposals for commercial alternatives, adding that Stephen Harper had been overheard to express hostility about the CBC/SRC in meetings, although Mr. Morrison acknowledged that the Prime Minister is usually more careful in public.
The Harper government has not been the first to cut the CBC/SRC.
According to Robert Rabinovitch, President and CEO between 1999 and 2007, the Harper government – like Mr. Martin's and Mr. Chretien’s before that – decided that the politics of a direct confrontation with the Public Broadcaster were not good politics. “So they have embarked on a stealth campaign of a death by a thousand cuts,” he said.
Mr. Rabinovitch acknowledged, in an email response to a written inquiry, that cuts were not all bad. Looking back, “we had to become more efficient, especially in marshalling resources to service both the English and French services, i.e., through foreign correspondents reporting in both languages.”
“We had to innovate and use digital resources to help manage the shortfall. We had to manage our real estate better,” he noted.
“The problem that there is a sense of entitlement at CBC that results in people seeing it as a fat cat organization,” he said. But there are limits, because the proposal of ‘give them less money and they will find a way to survive’ is problematic. “Yes, survive, but as a shell of what they were and could be for Canadian cultural development.”
And not only for Canadian cultural development, but also for the capacity to undertake in-depth investigative reporting. Mr. Rabinovitch pointed out that the Société Radio-Canada’s TV show Enquête undertook a four-year study that exposed corruption in Quebec, resulting in the Charbonneau Commission.
“What better evidence do we need of the importance of a CBC?,” he asked.
- 1932: The Canadian Radio Broadcasting Act creates the Canadian Radio Broadcasting Commission (CRBC).
- 1933: The national radio network is launched.
- 1936: CRBC is transformed into a crown corporation, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation/Société Radio-Canada.
- 1945: Radio Canada International is created.
- November 2011: A survey conducted by Harris-Decima shows strong support in the public to maintain current levels of funding for the CBC/SRC.
- March 2012: The 2012 federal Budget announces cuts of $115 million to the CBC/SRC.
- June 2012: Radio Canada International’s shortwave radio service – the “voice of Canada” to the world – is shut down
- July 2012: The CRTC eliminates the Local Programming Improvement Fund, representing $40 million in loss of funding for CBC/SRC.
Implications and Consequences
- Free Speech: CBC/SRC is a unique voice in this country and part of its cultural fabric. It brings a depth and breadth of research and commitment to the Canadian experience in and across every region, and in several languages. While recognizing the importance of efficiency and effectiveness, the current federal cuts go too far and diminish the vital role that only an independent and properly funded independent public broadcaster can offer.
- Democracy: Developed democratic states respect the roles and responsibilities of independent public broadcasters. They understand the difference between state broadcasters and public broadcasters and know that for the latter, independence is compromised by the constant and recurring cuts. The current arrangement of funding allocations through Parliament makes the public broadcaster vulnerable to political interference. There are alternative models in OECD countries for funding public broadcasting, for example through licence fees for TV, radio and online services.
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